1. Check in with your doctor
Exerting yourself can change how your body uses insulin, so if you haven’t exercised in a while, discuss your plans with your healthcare provider before you begin a physical activity program. If you have type 1 diabetes, or insulin-dependent type 2 diabetes, it is vital to have a solid understanding of how adding exercise can change your insulin needs, as failing to properly adjust insulin for new activity may cause dangerous blood sugar lows and highs. This is true for aerobic activity and for resistance training, such as lifting weights, push-ups, or sit-ups.
Even if you do not use insulin to manage your disease, exercise can alter how other diabetes medications work, so play it safe and get the okay first. On the plus side, however, exercise sensitizes the body to insulin. So, cells respond to it more effectively, improving glucose control for those with type 2 diabetes and sometimes allowing people with type 1 diabetes to use lower insulin doses over time.
2. Start slow
Ramp up physical activity slowly. If you do too much, too quickly, your muscles may become very sore. This can prevent you from sticking with your new commitment to fitness—the last thing you want. If you have formerly been more fit, be especially careful to give yourself time to get back there; pushing too hard can lead to injury and less exercise.
For example, you might decide to walk briskly for 15 minutes the first day, continue this plan for one to two weeks, and then bump it up to 20 minutes per day. Work your way toward a goal of 30 to 45 minutes of walking daily.
3. Hydrate well
The body functions best when well hydrated. Just a 2% loss of body fluid can decrease performance by 25% or more! Staying hydrated allows your body to properly cool itself, and helps the kidneys function—especially important because diabetes can tax kidneys and decrease kidney function over time.
4. Keep track
As long as you don’t have a fluid restriction, drink 2 cups of water—16 ounces—one to two hours prior to a hard workout. Drink another 8 ounces 15 minutes before beginning exercise. If you’re exercising hard and sweating noticeably, drink an additional 8 ounces for every 15 minutes of working out. You may need more or less than this, depending on conditions. Drink more during harder workouts and hot weather.
5. Pick proper fluids
If you’re simply walking or doing other light activity, you may not need extra liquid. If your urine is any darker than a pale straw color, you’re not getting enough fluids. And unless you’re working out very hard for more than 90 minutes, plain water is best. Skip the sports drinks, which contain electrolytes that are meaningless for most people under most conditions—and almost all are loaded up with sugar you don’t need anyway.
6. Pick appropriate activities
If you have conditions or symptoms that limit your ability to perform physical activity, ask your doctor for suggestions. For example, some people with diabetes develop neuropathy, which can cause a painful burning sensation in hands and feet. If you have neuropathy, walking, running, and basketball may not be realistic options.
Instead, try lower-impact activities, such as bike riding, swimming, gentle yoga, or water aerobics. Remember, any activity is better than none! Simply getting off the couch more regularly may be all you need to garner the benefits of physical activity.